Social emotional learning for displaced children in Iraq

Jess Estrada's picture
Posted by Jess Estrada on
Tue, 08/30/2016

Shirin Ezaddin Abdullah is standing in front of her classroom in Barika Refugee Camp in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) during a particularly hot day as the temperature hovers around 110 degrees Fahrenheit. It is summer break so most of her 200 students are not in attendance, instead she has a quieter class of 15 students. The children have their eyes closed and are taking deep breaths in and out while Shirin Ezaddin Abdullah guides them in an exercise called ‘the five candles.’ It is her favorite exercise to use with her students, all of whom have fled their homes in Syria and been exposed to the repercussions of the five-year long civil war.

Shirin Ezaddin Abdullah holds up her palm in front of her face and describes how they should picture themselves inhaling the scent of a flower, and then when exhaling “imagining you are blowing out five candles.” She does this five times, until the children have blown out all five candles.

This is part of the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum designed by the IRC that Shirin Ezaddin Abdullah has been trained in and is using in her classroom. She has been teaching for one-year and is part of a program for teachers in Northern Iraq that provide training and support to 67 teachers that hoped to fill the gap of much needed basic training and materials for new teachers.

Ezaddin Abdullah is a teacher in Barika refugee camp in Sulaymaniyah and is part of the International Rescue Committee’s Healing Classroom initiative. She has been using the SEL curriculum in her classroom since May of this year and in this class is focused on teaching her students about empathy.

As of July 2016 the total number of registered Syrian refuges in the region has climbed to 4.8 million.  With limited resources, teachers like Shirin Ezaddin Abdullah have to make do with what they have to support students that have a variety of social and emotional needs, as well as the urgency to keep-up with their academic work and not fall behind in school.

A large component of the Healing Classrooms curriculum and teacher training work is to give instructors the tools to learn the critical skills including classroom management, lesson planning and how to best work with students who have fallen behind in their studies. Instructors are taught how to organize a positive and safe classroom, the use of positive words with children to praise and encourage good behavior and developing a positive sense of self-worth and empathy.

Since May of this year, Shirin Ezaddin Abdullah has been using exercises techniques such as belly breathing that are part of the IRC’s SEL curriculum, and has noticed it has made a difference. The activity helps to calm and sooth students, giving her the ability to capture their attention and concentration- even during the hottest summer days.

“For the students who pay attention and follow along I have noticed changes in their behavior,” said Shirin Ezaddin Abdullah. “When there is no electricity it is very hot and … it is hard to pay attention. SEL exercises has helped me bring the focus back to the lessons.” 

They even practice on their own. When she arrives for class each day she typically finds her students are already there at their desks, eyes closed, one hand on their chest and one on their belly, practicing the breathing exercises she has taught them.

“The children love the belly breathing,” said Ezaddin Abdullah.  “They express their enthusiasm to do these activities in class whenever they have the opportunity” she stated.


The Students Rebuild Healing Classrooms Challenge, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee and Global Nomads Group helped Syrian youth from conflict areas recover from crisis and grow into happy, healthy adults. The Bezos Family Foundation matched every pinwheel you made and mailed in with $2--up to $400,000--to support IRC's Healing Classrooms program.